Philius was roused by shouts of panic and alarm. His adrenaline kicking in like an electric shock, he bolted to his feet, nearly tripping over Chrysalism in the process.
“What is it, Phil?” She asked, sitting up and creaking as she stretched.
“I don’t know, but something’s very wrong.” Philius muttered. “I’ll check it out.”
Outside, the camp was in complete chaos. Half-dressed and half-equipped Brykians and bandits ran in every direction, while in the eye of the hurricane, the General bellowed orders, the only fully-dressed and prepared person present.
“What’s going on, General?” Philius asked, jogging over to the frustrated man.
“I’ll tell you what’s going on!” The General bellowed, mustache shaking. “The Toscavs got wise to us and marched all last night through Xarando’s Spine! We’re surrounded!”
“How’d this happen? Philius gasped.
“Our damn sentries decided to take the night off to be with their wives.” Brogan growled. “If I hadn’t gone to check on them first thing once I woke up, who knows where we’d be now. The Toscavs are standing their ground at present, but I don’t know for how long. Now grab a bow and get to the edge of the forest! We have to hold them off until we can find a way out of this!”
“General!” The red-headed bandit called out, rushing towards the pair. “The enemy commander is looking to parlay!”
Brogan sighed and adjusted his scabbard. “Well, lets go see what those blighters want from us.”
Philius couldn’t help but whistle in admiration when he saw the amassed Toscav army a dozen yards or so from the edge of the forest. Assembled in perfect formation, they stretched as far as the eye could see, encircling Swimfa'alafr’s little copse and cutting off any thoughts of escape. At the front of them all, mounted on a spotless ebony charger sat Orscozz, the Toscav Commander. As Brogan approached, he inclined his head slightly in respect.
“So you’re the man that has been such a thorn in my side this past week.” Orscozz commented wryly.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” The General nodded respectfully back. “You didn’t bring as many men as I thought.” He quipped, looking around at the assembled horde.
“Some of my men are still feeling the worse for wear from the poison you slipped them.” Orscozz apologized. “They’ll be arriving later on.”
“Just so. I hate being stood up.” The General returned.
Orscozz chuckled in response. “You’re every bit what I imagined you’d be. Now, enlighten me if you wouldn’t mind. Why go to such lengths? I won’t insult you by assuming you were paid to do this.”
“Harrumph, I should hope not.” Brogan scoffed.
“Personal, then?” Orscozz guessed. “I don’t recognize you myself. Did I kill someone dear to you?”
“Nothing so trite.” The General waved the guess away. “But since you asked, I suppose I owe you an answer.” He held up two fingers. “It’s twofold. Firstly, to show you what happens when you trample over the lives of innocent Brykian citizens.”
“Are you Brykian, then?” The Commander raised an eyebrow.
“No, but they are.” The General gestured with his thumb to the copse. “And every man, woman, and child there is out for your blood.”
“Playing nice and letting the citizens go free didn’t win me any favours, did it?” The Commander sighed. “I really was set on not depopulating Bryke unnecessarily.”
“Never turn your back on a live enemy.” Brogan shrugged.
“Duly noted.” Orscozz smiled. “The second reason?”
The General drew himself up to full height and flipped back his cloak, revealing his tattered military jacket beneath, adorned with its dozen-some medals. “The Jortnan 101st, 102nd, and 103rd legions are present and accounted for, and ready to sell their lives again for King and Country!” he slammed a fist against his chest in salute.
“Why, then you must be Gen. Brogan Phelps!” Orscozz replied in quiet awe. “If only we had met in better circumstances, I would raise my glass alongside yours and call you friend. Your exploits and conquests are the stuff of legend.”
“I don’t suppose that would be enough to convince you to return to your king empty handed, friend?” Brogan smirked.
“Regrettably not, friend.” Orscozz matched his smirk. “In truth, I’m all the more eager to clash with you now. However, out of mutual respect, if you and your army agree to stand down, I will swear to spare them unconditionally. I’m not a monster, slaughtering a bunch of peasant folk would leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
“You’d leave live enemies behind you again?’ Brogan chuckled. “You’re too trusting, Commander.”
“A failing of mine.” He admitted. “Still, the world’s not so far gone that I can’t trust the word of a gentleman.”
“Well said.” The General applauded. “I’ll talk to my men, see what they will do.” He paused. “Oh, but before that, I have a question back for you, Commander.”
“Anything, General.” Orscozz inclined his head.
“My sergeant and his division were camped on Xarando’s Spine. I assumed they would have made things hard for you, but yet the pass is clear. What happened to them?”
A pained expression crossed Orscozz’s face. “We ambushed them last night. I sent two advanced parties with our remaining horses the long ways around to clear out the top of the Spine. I intended to take them prisoner, but they fought to the last man. That sergeant you spoke of lost an arm, and still managed to kill my lieutenant and four others before succumbing to his wounds.”
The General’s face hardened. “I see.” Was all he said before turning his back and returning to the grove.
“You should be proud to have men that devoted to you.” Orscozz called after him. “But I beg you to make the right decision. Only you can save the lives of your people, General.”
“So that is where we stand.” The General addressed the gathered Brykians and bandits. “Any hope we had of delaying them long enough for the Etrurian Legion to arrive is over. Our rider only left yesterday; the legion won’t arrive for at least another four days. I suggest we surrender and go home.” The General hung his head.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Walfus smiled wolfishly, sardonically filing his nails. “I assumed something would go wrong, so the day before yesterday I sent out a Messenger Raven to one of my trading posts right outside Alsium on the Etrurian border. It was carrying directions for one of my men to ride into town claiming he had ridden all the way from Jortnan, and that the Toscavs are already outside their gates. By my reckoning, the Legion should arrive tomorrow.” He shrugged. “Of course, I wasn’t expecting things to go this badly, so they’ll still be a day late, but it’s a sight better than nothing.”
“Walfus, you conniving snake of a man, that’s brilliant!” Philius exclaimed. “So, we just need to hold out for a day? We can do that, right?”
“Have you seen the size of their army?” The General sighed. “I cannot in good conscience recommend it. We would be slaughtered before noon even came.”
“But every hour we buy is one more hour’s preparation for Jortnan, and one less hour the Toscavs are holding them in siege.” Philius pointed out.
“You are not incorrect.” The General admitted. “But these are your lives we are playing with. I won’t ask you all to throw them away for Jortnan. I leave the decision up to you. This is our one chance to leave alive.”
The clearing was silent for a moment, as each weighed the options in their mind; a glorious death in battle, or a shameful retreat, but their whole life ahead?”
And then Marwynn spoke up. “As Brykians, there’s only one answer. What did my namesake, Marwynn the Great say when faced with a horde of countless Tysklandish barbarians at his gates?” His voice dropped to a low whisper, one that was echoed by every Brykian there. “No retreat, no surrender. If you turn your back to leave, never return, for you leave your Brykian heritage behind.”
“Well, I guess that settles it then.” Walfus grinned. “Now, lets send them the message.
“Commander, a messenger is leaving the grove and heading our way!”
Orscozz looked up from his map, rolling it up and swinging into his saddle. “Now then, what path have you chosen, Brogan?” He mused.
“A message for Orscozz, Commander of the Toscav 4th army!” The red-headed bandit announced, riding up.
“I am Orscozz.” He declared. “Speak, man. What is Brogan’s answer?”
“The General says thus;” The bandit announced. “Turn your back on this enemy at your own peril, for you will pay for making foes of Bryke and Jortnan both.”
“Well said, man.” Orscozz smiled grimly, leaning forward in his saddle. “However, there’s far more of a reckoning in store for me than just for Bryke and Jortnan. Run along now, lest you get caught in your own archers’ fire.”
Orscozz smiled softly at the chagrin on the man’s face at being called out on the planned surprise volley. As the bandit rode back, the Commander gave the order for his troops to advance. “Shields up, lads.” He cautioned, lowering his visor and raising his own shield. “We’re in for a spot of rain.
“Fire at will!” The General commanded, and as one, hundreds of arrows bloomed out of the grove, making a graceful arc as they plunged earthward again, seeking Toscav flesh and buzzing like a cloud of angry hornets. In response, the Toscavs release their own answering volley, every second man holding a bow instead of a shield, releasing hungry arrow after arrow before retreating to safety behind his mate.
“Hey Swim, how’re you holding?” Philius asked the tree next to him as he loosed another shot, ducking instinctively as an arrow embedded itself into a branch in front of him.
“I’m managing.” Swimfa'alafr replied, her face emerging from the wood. “I’ve made a lattice of branches above us, now I’m just blocking any that come in from the lower angles.”
“Thanks, Swim. You’re literally saving our lives here.” Philius grinned.
“Very kind of you to say.” The World-Gardener smiled demurely, vanishing into the tree again.
“All right, keep the pressure on!” The General bellowed. “Every Toscav we kill is one less Toscav for their siege of Jortnan.”
“Every solider they kill is one less soldier for our siege of Jortnan.” The commander’s aide commented worriedly, hiding behind Orscozz’s charger.
“Yes, I had hoped they’d lost enough men to surrender by now, but whatever magic they used on that forest seems to be protecting them now.”
“What are your orders, commander?” The aide asked.
“Nothing for it.” He sighed. “Burn them out.”
“At last!” The aide breathed, turning and bellowing to the troops. “All men, switch to fire arrows! Torch-bearers, forward!”
Each archer pulled out a roll of cloth and jar of oil, tearing off a strip and tying it tightly to their arrow before dipping it in the oil. Behind them, men with torches moved through the ranks, igniting waiting arrows as they went. Behind them, four salvaged catapults were rolled into position and loaded with burning naphtha and pitch.
“Fire!” The Commander bellowed, and the morning sky glowed evening hues.
Swimfa'alafr screamed. All throughout her body flames erupted, as leaves disintegrated, bark crumbled, and sap boiled. She squirmed and beat at the countless tongues of fire, but that only sent sparks flying further, conflagrating the inferno. Swimfa'alafr turned to Philius for help, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking at the red-haired bandit, who was now nothing more than so much burning charcoal and blackened bones, a load of pitch having found him instantly.
Swimfa'alafr couldn’t take any more.
The Toscavs gasped in awe as the forest wriggled and danced like a dying beast, before in a spray of dirt, the grove retreated into the soil, leaving the dispirited Brykians and bandits in the open. Sensing the end of the fight, the Toscavs nocked their arrows and aimed…
“CEASE THIS NOW!”
A terrible, guttural rumble tore through the assembled armies, setting every hair on end. Out of the ground in front of a very shocked Orscozz, the World Gardener sprung out, rising to her full 9 feet, putting her directly at eye level with the mounted Commander.
“A World-Gardener!” Orscozz breathed in awe, before snapping back to reality, drawing himself up to attention. “My heartfelt greetings, big sister.” He bowed deeply. “How is it that you have come to take a side in this war?”
“I have maintained my vow of pacifism.” She declared. “I have not directly harmed a hair on your men’s heads.”
“And yet you have taken a side in a dispute among the transient races.” He pressed. “Big sister, we have no quarrel with you, and would not dream of intentionally bringing you harm. Please leave, lest you be caught up in our moral combat.”
“You would not seek to harm me?” She scowled. “I was caught up in your mortal combat long before this day. You made an enemy of me when you harvested my flesh at Eldarth to build your war toys, boy.”
Orscozz looked stricken. “Eldarth? No!” he turned to his aide. “Bring my chief engineer, now!”
The engineer in question was a jittery beanpole of a man, perpetually squinting through ill-made spectacles at his audience. “You called me, Commander?” He asked, nervously eyeing the World-Gardener.
“Mokket, when I commanded you to build siege weapons, did I not specifically order you to draft your wood from the forests in Bryke?”
“Well, yes, you did.” Mokket explained. “But it was terribly poor-quality stuff, nothing like I was used to working with. Fortunately there was a nearby unattended forest on the Etrurian border that was something of a no-man’s land. I had our men draw from that instead.”
“And did you know why the forest was a no-man’s land?” Orscozz asked, his voice dangerously level.
“Well, there was talk of old legends and such, but I ignored that and set out teams to work. You’d be surprised how quickly people forget their superstitions when you dangle a bonus in front of them. After all, we can’t hardly conquer all of Eiropa if we pay attention to every little folk ritual and custom.” He scoffed.
“I see.” Orscozz nodded. In one smooth motion, he drew his sword and lopped off the head of the unfortunate engineer.
“Round up the rest of the engineering crew.” Orscozz commanded his aide. “Once we finish here, we’ll burn them alive with their own siege engines.”
“Sir!” The aide saluted, dodging around the headless corpse as he scurried off.
“That is the most I can do for you, big sister.” Orscozz turned sadly to the World-Gardener. “It’s likely a small comfort that I intended none of this, but it’s the simple truth.”
“You’re an honest man, little brother.” Swimfa'alafr sighed, eyeing the man softly. “Tell me, is there no way I can convince you to not fight Jortnan?”
“Not even for you, big sister.” The Commander shook his head sadly. “I don’t do this for my own position or profit, but because I believe in my king, and his dream.”
“And what is that dream?”
“A united Eiropa.” Orscozz explained. “Since long before my Grandfather was a lad, my hometown alone has changed hands so many times, I don’t even know what nationality to claim as my heritage. Yes, my liege has a brutal methodology to him, but if he finally brings peace to this land, I’ll dye my hands with as much blood and filth as I need.”
“So you’ll march to Jortnan, even if it means going through me.” She confirmed.
“Even if it means that, yes.” He nodded. “So please, for the love of Yoru, take your army and stand down. You can plainly see we outnumber you. The World-Gardeners are a far more practical sort than us humans. You can afford to take the long view of things, so you should agree that a small sacrifice in blood now is worth generations of peace ahead.”
“It seems you really do understand us World-Gardeners.” Swimfa'alafr smiled sadly.
“I always admired your pragmaticism.” Orscozz shrugged, returning her gaze.
“But you’re a long way from understanding me.” She declared.
“Beg pardon?” The Commander raised an eyebrow.
With inhuman speed, Swimfa'alafr lashed out, snapping the man’s neck and launching him head over heels into the sky.
“Ah, my work is finally over.” Orscozz thought wistfully, as the earth and sky blended madly.
“/Just once more, I wish
/To behold your radiance
/Dear Yvierra.” Orscozz intoned, before his body met the ground.
“Swimfa'alafr, no!” Chrysalism cried out, tears pooling in her artificial eyes.
“Commander!” The aide cried shrilly, his eyes misting. “Damnit men, kill that monster!”
But not a solider moved to attack, they were transfixed by the sight before them.
Amidst a low rumbling like a brooding earthquake, hundreds of worm-like tree trunks erupted from the ground, lifting Swimfa'alafr into the air and coiling around each other like a nest of snakes.
Finally, Philius understood why when Swimfa'alafr walked, she was always connected by roots to the ground.
The Swimfa'alafr they all knew, in her 9-foot glory, was only a single finger of her whole body, poking up through the ground.
Towering above the battlefield, She-Who-Is-Most-Fair,-Above-All-Last-Autumn’s-Fallen-Raindrops, World-Gardener of Southern Sagittaria had risen.ns18.104.22.168da2